It’s easy to get swept up in the promises of emerging technologies: You’ve heard it once, and you’ll hear again how things like blockchain and Amazon’s Alexa are disrupting the travel industry, fundamentally changing how trips will be bought and sold.
But when does the talk turn from promise and buzz to practical application in the travel space?
It’s a bit tricky, to say the least, to develop and scale new technologies that truly improve the traveler experience.
Arthur Chapin, senior vice president of global product and design at Expedia Group, knows this first hand, having been with the company for nearly 20 years through investments in and experiments with a number of emerging technologies to varying degrees of success (Expedia’s dalliance with Bitcoin, for example, failed to take off.)
Speaking with PhocusWire at Expedia Group’s first Research Summit, Chapin shares his thoughts on new technologies - from the good, to the bad, to the blockchain - and their potential impact on the industry.
Voice technology, Chapin believes, is “going to have the biggest impact, not only in travel but in how people search and discover things [generally] and how they interact with technology.”
The technology’s true transformational power doesn’t lie in its current form – e.g., people asking questions to an Alexa device – but rather in multimodal application.
“How painful would it be if you didn’t know what hotel you want, and [a voice device] is reading through a list of the top 50 hotels in Vegas,” he says.
“There’s some technology that needs to evolve before [multimodal] really becomes part of how people shop and discover travel, but the fluidity and ease of the interaction is key.”
Expedia, he says, is currently focusing on the discovery phase and answering traveler questions with voice, but as the tech evolves, he envisions situations in which a family planning a trip, for example, will interact with content not just from voice devices but through their phones, TV, etc.
“That’s when it starts to become rich,” he says.
“All of these technologies exist, but they’re not seamless,” he continues. “That’s something we look at. There’s what’s possible with technology, and there’s when technology actually makes life easier.”
Messaging and chat
Chat functionality is another technology that’s “absolutely going to change how people interact,” Chapin says.
In Asia in particular, the technology is already dominant, but the messaging ecosystem is starting to evolve outside of the region, he says.
Expedia is investing in how to use chat for customer support and around basic shopping capabilities, but implementing the technology has its challenges.
“Like everybody, we’re figuring it out, weeding our way through it,” he says. “There are new challenges in terms of traditionally how you would test and evolve a product on a website, and it’s different when you’re actually using a chat platform. We’re having to learn as we go.”
Chat, as well as voice, provides travelers a service throughout the entire travel lifecycle, he says. “People want to stay more connected, and these technologies make it easier and at a much lower cost for individual companies and consumers.”
Currently, customers are primarily interested in using chat for customer service purposes, but as the technology advances and evolves into handling more complex flows, consumers will shift their behaviors and have more involved interactions.
Augmented reality, Chapin says, is “slightly less impactful” than other emerging technologies.
“In my mind, AR has huge potential if done subtly and done well,” he says. “There are some really practical uses cases that we’re looking at right now, but I see this as a technology that may never truly hit the mainstream in travel for a while.”
Expedia currently applies the technology for one “ultra-practical” and “ultra-important” use case, which is to determine if a customer’s luggage will fit in an aircraft, but the company is otherwise not investing in it heavily at the moment.
“[AR] requires a ton of very local information, and it’s also quite difficult to do that at scale. Part of the story for both AR and VR, especially in travel, is that they require such a huge scale of content there’s a pretty high barrier to entry,” he says.
“I think the content creation barrier has been a challenge, and there have certainly been AR experiences I’ve seen that were just overwhelming and not helpful.”
Virtual reality experiences, similarly, can be “absolutely awkward at bet.”
VR equipment is getting cheaper, but using it is “still quite unnatural and quite gimmicky.”
Expedia has implemented the technology to the benefit of its cruise ship center franchise partners – allowing them to explore what franchises may look like – but true scale in commercial use in travel is a long way off, Chapin says.
Blockchain is a technology that’s “very, very interesting in terms of how it could be applied and finding the right ways and places to apply it,” Chapin says.
For example, Bitcoin is challenging to do at scale both for consumers and companies, he says, but it’s no secret the overall financial landscape is ripe for disruption.
“Any time a new technology comes out, there’s huge hype, but most of that becomes inflated expectations: You have the trough of disillusionment, then you start to see practical applications,” he says.
Part of the story for both AR and VR, especially in travel, is that they require such a huge scale of content there’s a pretty high barrier to entry.
Arthur Chapin - Expedia Group
“It’s likely not a huge Big Bang like what you saw with Libra [cryptocurrency]. It’s actually like a step back from a Big Bang, and we’re going to have a consortium that’s going to be made up of large entities that are going to ensure things like stability, etc.”
In other words: Blockchain implementation is going to take time.
“We do have to be thoughtful, because at the end of the day, these are customers’ trips,” he says.
“You’re not only making sure you have the overall scale of the system, but you also need to have the reliability and certainty around what you’re doing.”
* This reporter's attendance at the event was supported by Expedia Group.